Sanford, Fla., is a suburb of Orlando, a city known for making children’s dreams come true. But for 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, it was no trip to Disney World that night in late February when his life ended in a tragic shooting.
His death sparked a news and media frenzy, bringing hundreds of protestors, emotions, public outcries, and a blitz of mounting opinions and questions of applicable laws. Once again, we see that a wrong has occurred, and there is a need to determine who is responsible and legally liable.
Much has been made of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which was passed in 2005 and is part of Florida Statute 776. The law gives immunity to people who use deadly force in their own defense, but only when there is clear evidence that the deadly force was used without malice or evil intent. What many do not realize is that a majority of states have passed similar laws that protect those who stand their ground under threat of death or serious injury.
With that in mind, let’s look at some of the parties who are potentially liable.
Potential liability: Failure to exercise due diligence and obey the law with regards to the ownership and proper usage of a firearm.
George Zimmerman is a homeowner in the gated Florida community known as Retreat at Twin Lakes, where the shooting took place. He was known as the “captain” of the community watch group set up by the homeowners’ association. According to news reports, the group requested in a newsletter they published that if anything suspicious occurred, Zimmerman should be contacted.
Did Zimmerman have a proper permit and/or license to carry the gun that he used to allegedly shoot Trayvon? Was he aware of its safety features and proper usage? Was it permissible by law for Zimmerman to be carrying the firearm on the homeowner’s property? What duty is owed to others by someone carrying a firearm? What background checks or determination was used to establish that Zimmerman was competent to be armed as a part of the watch group? What were the actions of both parties that resulted in this tragic outcome?
Were the actions of Zimmerman a representation of the homeowners’ association and on behalf of other homeowners? According to Reuters’ interview with Donna DiMaggio Berger, a partner at Katzman, Garfinkel & Berger, a law firm that represents community associations, the relationship that the association had with Zimmerman will play a role in what, if any, liability is found on the part of the homeowners’ association. As it appears, the board cannot say it had no idea that Zimmerman held himself out as the neighborhood watch captain.
There have been previous cases in Florida in which homeowners’ associations were bankrupted by large judgments from negative verdicts, resulting in the individual homeowners being held responsible for payment.
Retreat at Twin Lakes Security Guards
Potential Liability: Allowing Trayvon to enter the gated community where he was not a resident and for not responding to a situation that was evolving and had generated repeated 911 calls.
Many questions arise for the security staff. Did the security officers or other security measures fail when Trayvon, a non-resident, was allowed to enter the property? Were the security personnel employees of the homeowners’ association, or were they private contractors?
Since 911 was repeatedly called, was a security guard sent to the area that the emergency call came from? Did the security staff respond properly, and were they trained in these types of situations?
The Homeowners’ Association
Potential Liability: Creating an unsafe environment by encouraging homeowners to defend their properties and for allowing Zimmerman to lead the group.
It was reported that in the neighborhood where Zimmerman resided, there had been recent complaints of burglaries and break-ins. A homeowners’ association meeting was held, and a citizen’s watch group was formed. According to the Associated Press, a newsletter sent from the association encouraged homeowners to contact Zimmerman if an incident occurred. If the homeowners’ association did owe a duty to Trayvon and that duty was breached by the association or Zimmerman, the association’s insurance policies may be involved in payment of damages brought forth in a civil lawsuit.
Potential Liability: Trespassing and breaching a duty owed by demonstrating behavior that is not expected of a normal, prudent person; or by breaking the law.
While Trayvon Martin was reported to have allegedly assaulted Zimmerman, that is a matter for the courts to determine after presentation of all of the evidence. However, for the purposes of this column, we want to only examine how the actions of Trayvon Martin, or any other individual, are important in any determination of liability.
When determining liability, you must determine the following: the duties owed by each of the parties; the duties breached by each of the parties; that the damages were an approximate result of the breach; and, finally, did the parties that incurred damages contribute to those damages? The duties owed to a trespasser are quite different than those owed to a licensee or invitee. However, the law states that even if someone is trespassing, you cannot “lie in wait” or take action that is designed to injure the trespasser beyond the use of such force as is necessary to expel the trespasser from the premises.
Was there anything that Trayvon did to contribute to his damages? This will be an aspect of the liability that must be examined and determined by the courts.
This investigation and its related litigation will continue for some time to come and once the criminal case is tried, the civil cases will be determined. There cannot be a determination until all information and facts have been obtained and verified and the investigation is complete.
It is unfortunate and heartbreaking that such a young life is lost. Those of us in the claims industry who have handled cases involving such complex issues and death know that these are the most difficult claims to investigate and make a liability decision as to who is liable and what compensation is to be paid for these seemingly immeasurable damages.
Mary Anne Medina is an instructor and course developer for Vale Training Solutions. She has extensive experience in claims process redesign and claims handling training, with an emphasis on liability loss adjusting. She has been a CLM Fellow since 2010 and can be reached at MMedina@vale-ts.com.